Canyonlands: Exploring The Overlooked Needles District

Last Updated on: 14th January 2024, 12:32 am

The Needles is the southernmost of Canyonlands National Park’s three main districts. But there’s no way to drive there directly from the Island in the Sky, the park’s most popular. As such, visiting The Needles district feels like going to an entirely separate park. And it looks like one, too.

Canyonlands gets the least amount of visitors among Utah’s Mighty 5. And among those who visit, only a fraction head to The Needles. Even visiting on a summer holiday with perfect weather, I only ran into a handful of people in the entire district. If you’re looking to escape the crowds during your time in Moab, look no further than The Needles.

While I’d originally planned to dedicate a full day to The Needles district, I ended up visiting various sites throughout Bears Ears National Monument earlier that morning. As such, my visit was rather rushed. Nevertheless, I still got to do and see most of what I’d planned, and I’d recommend other visitors see the sites in the same order as described below.

The main alteration I’d suggest for those with more time would be to extend the Elephant Hill hike as much as possible. More on that shortly.

For more info on getting to The Needles and where to stay in Moab, be sure to check the end of the article.

The Needles District Canyonlands
The Needles District Canyonlands
The views on the way to The Needles
More formations along Highway 211

Navigating the Trails

Most of The Needles district and Canyonlands as a whole lack reception, so it’s vital to download trail maps in advance that you can later access offline. The two best apps for this are AllTrails and onX Backcountry, both of which require subscriptions that cost around $30 per year for offline access.

Just be sure to have everything downloaded on your phone in advance, as once you make it to the heart of the park, it will already be too late! The free app can also come in handy, especially for off-road navigation.

The Roadside Ruin Trail

On the way to The Needles district, you’ll have passed by Newspaper Rock, a set of ancient petroglyphs carved by the various native cultures that have long inhabited these lands. Unsurprisingly, evidence of the region’s ancient inhabitants – particularly the Ancestral Puebloans – can also be found within The Needles.

Past the entrance station, the first trailhead you’ll encounter is that of the Roadside Ruin, a short and easy trail that takes visitors to an ancient Puebloan structure.

In addition to the stone structure itself, this is a good place to learn about local plants. Grab a paper trail guide near the entrance and then stop to observe the various numbered posts along the trail to learn more.

The Needles District Canyonlands
The Needles District Canyonlands

In total, the trail should just take you about twenty minutes, with a roundtrip distance of 0.3 miles (0.5 km). While it’s not entirely clear what this structure is, it does seem to resemble granaries that one can find at nearby sites like House on Fire, or Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky.

Looking off into the distance, you’ll also get your first taste of the beautiful scenery that the district has to offer.

The Cave Spring Trail

The main road which runs through The Needles district is known as Park Highway. Finished with the Roadside Ruin, I headed down the main road to see the Wooden Shoe Overlook. 

And shortly after that, I turned left onto Squaw Flat Rd, heading east until I reached the trailhead for the Cave Spring Trail.

The Cave Spring Trail is another interesting trail that combines local history with natural scenery. In total, the trail is just 0.6 miles (1 km) and should only take you about twenty minutes. While an easy hike overall, it does involve climbing up some ladders.

The Needles District Canyonlands
The Wooden Shoe Overlook

In a barren environment such as this one, a year-round water source is going to be greatly coveted by local inhabitants. So it’s no surprise that the Cave Spring, which provided both water and shelter, shows evidence of thousands of years of human habitation. 

It’s believed, in fact, that the area was inhabited by native tribes as far back as 6,000 years ago before they left the region around 700 years ago.

The Needles District Canyonlands
The Needles District Canyonlands

In more recent times, these natural shelters were inhabited by cowboys. They established camps like the replica on display from the late 1800s up until the 1970s, when cattle ranching in the area was discontinued for good.

Supposedly, the area is home to ancient pictographs, but I didn’t end up spotting any.

The Needles District Canyonlands

Walking along the trail, you’ll eventually reach the cool Cave Spring itself. The water in the cave is sourced by rainwater which percolates through the porous sandstone. 

You’ll spot plants like the maidenhair fern growing on the walls, while local animals are known to frequent the spot as well.

The Needles District Canyonlands
The Needles District Canyonlands

The next portion of the loop trail takes place atop the rocky plateau. And to get up there, you’ll have to ascend two ladders. Fortunately, these ones are indeed bolted to the rockface, unlike California’s Ladder Canyon hike!

Around the top, you’ll get to enjoy excellent views. Just make sure to pay attention to the cairns which demarcate the official trail.

The Needles District Canyonlands

Elephant Hill

Finished with the Cave Spring Trail, I briefly returned to the main road before making the next left. Confusingly, this road is also labeled as Squaw Flat Campground Rd on Google Maps. Despite this, it wasn’t too complicated to reach my next destination, the Elephant Hill Trailhead.

Once again, visitors must traverse a dirt road to get to this trailhead. While relatively smooth, it was extremely curvy and windy, so be sure to take things slow.

My plan was to do a hike called the ‘Chesler Park Overlook’ which is labeled on AllTrails and is supposed to take around two hours and forty-five minutes total as an out-and-back hike. 

The Needles District Canyonlands

But given my hectic schedule on this day, it was already 16:30 in the afternoon by the time I reached the trailhead. And since there were still a few additional hikes I wanted to do in The Needles, I turned around after an hour of hiking, resulting in a shortened two-hour hike.

But now having experienced this area, I hope to come back someday. There’s even a much longer much longer five-hour ‘Chesler Park Loop Trail’ hike that I would love to try in the future.

In any case, it would be wise to come here with a clear plan, as you’ll encounter numerous intersecting trails in the area.

The Needles District Canyonlands

Whichever variation of the hike you choose, you’ll start with a tiring but manageable uphill ascent from the parking lot. And it won’t be long before you can enjoy amazing views of various sandstone formations in the distance.

This hike also offers a clear view of The Needles – the colorful sandstone spires after which this district was named. 

The Needles District Canyonlands
The Needles District Canyonlands
The Needles District Canyonlands

Three hundred million years ago, The Needles district was submerged under water by an ancient sea. It eventually evaporated, leaving behind a mix of salt and sand. 

These sediments later hardened into the red and white stripes which make up the Cedar Mesa formation we see today.

The red layers are comprised of sediment that originated in the ancestral Rocky Mountains before being brought here by streams. The white layers, meanwhile, originally came from sand bars left by the evaporating sea and brought to this area by winds.

The Needles District Canyonlands

Everywhere I looked, the scenery was stunning. Unfortunately, however, the sun was getting lower in the sky and no longer shining directly on the Needles themselves.

As mentioned, you’ll want to come here with a clear plan, as it won’t be long before you encounter a major intersection. And given the beauty of the area, it will be tempting to try and see everything. 

One popular landmark in this general area of ‘The Needles backcountry’ is known as Druid Arch, but I wouldn’t end up having time to see it.

The Needles District Canyonlands

At some point, the Elephant Hill Trail will finish and transition into the Chesler Park Trail. And turning around a corner, you’ll encounter a large grassy field with a massive stone wall behind it. 

Pictures don’t quite do it justice, but this was one of the most beautiful sights I witnessed in The Needles.

The Needles District Canyonlands

As mentioned earlier, The Needles only gets a fraction of the visitors that Island in the Sky gets. And despite this arguably being the district’s most scenic area, I didn’t encounter a single other person throughout my entire hike. Being out here alone made for quite a surreal experience.

The Needles District Canyonlands

Eventually, you’ll walk through a narrow slot canyon. And coming out the other side, the trail will take you through a wider canyon with more views of the Needles. 

While I was hoping to walk a bit further, the lighting for this section of the trail was far from ideal at this point in the day, so I decided to turn around.

The Needles District Canyonlands
The Needles District Canyonlands

If you couldn’t tell already, I was highly impressed with this part of The Needles. And if I could choose any part of Utah’s Mighty 5 to revisit, I’d love to do the full extended version of this hike someday, in addition to seeing the Druid Arch.

Pothole Point Trail

Next, I made the long return drive to The Needles’ main road. And from this point on, I wouldn’t have to make any other major detours.

Heading west, I stopped at the Pothole Point Trailhead. This is another one of The Needles district’s short and easy hikes. With the sun getting lower in the sky, I rushed through it and finished in about twenty minutes, though you could easily linger here for longer.

The Needles District Canyonlands

The loop trail takes you across a hard sandstone surface. While mostly flat, it’s full of shallow holes that resemble potholes, hence the trail’s name.

In the center are some interesting mushroom-like rock formations. But the main highlight is the views of the surrounding area.

If you’re not able to head deeper into The Needles backcountry (see above), this is a great spot from which to admire the Needles formations themselves. 

The Needles District Canyonlands
The Needles District Canyonlands

The Slickrock Trail

The Slickrock Trail is yet another trail to take you across a large sandstone formation. But this one is considerably longer at 2.4 miles (3.9 km), taking around an hour to complete. But in my case, things didn’t go quite as anticipated.

The Needles District Canyonlands
The Needles District Canyonlands

The Slickrock Trail consists of three main viewpoints which you’ll encounter after the initial ascent. Reaching the loop portion of the trail, you’ll find yourself mainly walking along the edge of the cliff. 

Later on, following the third viewpoint, the trail loops back around, during which you’ll end up walking in the middle of the formation.

The Needles District Canyonlands

While the scenery is indeed impressive, the lighting just wasn’t great at this point in the evening. Furthermore, even with the AllTrails app in hand, I found myself repeatedly getting off the official trail that was marked by sparsely placed and seemingly random cairns.

The Needles District Canyonlands
The Needles District Canyonlands

After reaching the third and final viewpoint, I was losing my patience trying to follow the cairns and so I decided to take an improvised shortcut by cutting through the middle of the ‘trail.’

All in all, the Slickrock Trail was my biggest disappointment at The Needles. But I would probably have to try it again at an earlier time of day to fairly judge it.

The Needles District Canyonlands

Big Spring Canyon Overlook

Just past the Slickrock Trailhead, you’ll reach the end of the main road. Here you’ll find the Big Spring Canyon Overlook. And in my case, I arrived just in time for sunset.

The Needles District Canyonlands
The Needles District Canyonlands

It’s even possible to climb up some of the spires that are visible in the distance. But despite having hardly seen any other visitors throughout the day, I spotted a family sitting atop one of the spires, and I didn’t want to interrupt them.

It’s also around here that you’ll find the Big Spring Trailhead. Incredibly, you can even take it all the way to the Elephant Hill Trail mentioned above. In total, this would be a strenuous 10.8-mile (17 km) loop trail. But looking at the map, it seems like you’d have to walk along a large portion of the main road to get back to your car.

With the sun having set, I had no choice but to make my return journey to Moab, finally arriving in town after 22:00 at night.

The Needles District Canyonlands

Additional Info

The Needles is about a 90-minute drive from central Moab. First, head south down Highway 191 before turning right onto Highway 211. From there, simply head straight until you reach the Needles Visitor Center.

Also be sure to stop and admire the petroglyphs of Newspaper Rock situated along Highway 211.

As mentioned above, there’s no direct road to The Needles district from the Island in the Sky.

While you can mostly get around just fine with a sedan, you might want to consider renting a 4×4 or AWD to more easily handle the unpaved roads within the park (the main road is entirely paved).

Before exploring The Needles district, I visited various sites around Bears Ears National Monument to the south of the park. I pretty much crammed two day trips into one, and while I saw most of what I’d hoped to see, it was a long and exhausting itinerary that I wouldn’t recommend most people attempt.

Bears Ears National Monument is absolutely worth seeing for archaeology lovers. But if at all possible, I’d recommend visiting Bears Ears and The Needles on separate days, which would also allow you to visit additional sites in both areas.

If I had to do things over again, my itinerary would look like this:

Day 1: Make the long drive from Moab to Natural Bridges National Monument (about 2 hours). Then, proceed east along Highway 95, visiting the sites in Bears Ears National Monument as described in our guide. If time allows, make a detour to the cliff dwelling of Monarch Cave, located down Comb Wash Rd. The turnoff is a little bit west of Butler Wash.

After Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum, simply head straight back to Moab.

Day 2: Start the day at Newspaper Rock, and then proceed down Highway 211 and head straight for The Needles. See all the sites and do all the hikes that you can. 

If I had to do things over again with a full day, I would follow the same itinerary as outlined above, but I’d replace my two-hour hike through Elephant Hill with the extended five-hour Chesler Park Loop Trail.

Considering how Moab serves as the base for two National Parks, one State Park and plenty of other nearby attractions, you’ll likely be spending at least several nights here.

Moab is one of the most touristy towns you’ll encounter in the Southwest, so there’s no shortage of accommodation options to choose from.

I stayed at a centrally-located motel called the The Virginian Inn Moab Downtown. Overall, I had a comfortable stay and consider it a good value.

The most peculiar thing about this motel is that the receptionists are located in the Philippines! There is someone on-call 24 hours, and you can start chatting with them via a video conferencing machine as soon as you enter the lobby. It felt rather strange at first, but the system actually worked out pretty well.

Other highly-rated accommodations for a similar price range include the Expedition Lodge, the Bowen Motel and the Rustic Inn.

For those who wish to thoroughly explore The Needles, you might also be interested in camping. Learn more here.

At the time of writing, Canyonlands National Park costs $30 per vehicle to enter (learn more here).

If you’re visiting from abroad, note that in contrast to many other countries, US parks typically charge per vehicle rather than per person. However, if you’re traveling by bicycle instead, they’ll charge you for an individual pass which costs $15, while those on motorcycles will be charged $25.

Considering how many National Parks and National Monuments there are to see in the Southwest alone, the best option for most will be to buy an ‘America the Beautiful’ Annual National Parks Pass.

These cost $80 for the year. In most cases, you’re already saving money by just visiting four National Parks/Monuments anywhere in the country within a full year.

What’s more, is that only one person in your vehicle needs to have the pass. Additionally, seniors can buy the pass for just $20. So if you have someone over 62 in your party, just have them get the annual pass and everyone else will be set.

As for where to get the pass, you can purchase it in person at most National Parks or Monuments. But you can also order it in advance online.

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